Corruption by Customs Officials Facilitating Cross-Border Criminal Activity

04/26/21 (written by rramos) – A growing number of customs officials in various parts of Mexico have come under investigation for alleged acts of corruption that purportedly enabled criminal networks to operate across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Animal Político reported on April 13 that the federal Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República, FGR) was investigating ten officials of the General Customs Administration (Administración General de Aduanas, AGA) who oversaw several ports of entry along Mexico’s northern border with the United States. This came after the Financial Intelligence Unit (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera, UIF), the anti-money laundering office within the federal finance ministry (Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, SHCP), detected numerous irregularities in the financial records of 29 AGA employees. As a result, all 29 officials were removed from their positions and ten were formally referred by the UIF to the FGR for further criminal investigation.

Specifically, the ten former customs officials are alleged to have accepted bribes in exchange for allowing contraband to pass uninterrupted through the border inspection sites under their supervision. The contraband that was illegally permitted to enter Mexico from the United States included firearms, gasoline, and drugs. According to investigators, ill-gotten proceeds from the alleged bribes were then laundered through a variety of complex methods, ranging from suspicious real estate transactions to the use of front companies.  

There are possible indications that corruption in Mexico’s customs service may be increasing. According to La Jornada, a total of 90 civil servants in the Tax Administration Service (Servicio de Administración Tributaria, SAT), the AGA’s parent agency, were referred to prosecutors for alleged corruption in 2020. This represents a nearly two-fold increase from 2019, when 46 SAT officials were formally denounced for possible corruption. Most of the SAT employees who faced criminal investigations in 2020 worked specifically for the AGA and were accused of receiving bribes related to the passage of contraband through Mexican customs.

Photo: El Sol de Tijuana.

Border Hot Spots

Investigations by the FGR and UIF have zoomed in on pervasive corruption in customs operations in two major border states: Baja California and Tamaulipas. Due to their geographic location, both states are of great strategic importance for criminal actors seeking to operate in both Mexico and the United States.

In Baja California, former administrators of customs inspection facilities in the border cities of Tijuana, Mexicali, and Tecate are accused of permitting the entry of illegally imported vehicles, some of which are believed to have contained firearms destined for recipients located in Mexico. Meanwhile in Tamaulipas, federal investigators believe high-level customs officials at border crossings in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros have received bribes in exchange for allowing trailer trucks to bring gasoline, diesel, and other fuels from the U.S. state of Texas to be illegally re-sold at low prices in Mexico. In one specific case, a March 2021 FGR report highlighted the critical role played by customs personnel in Tamaulipas in a sprawling conspiracy that allowed considerable amounts of fuel to be smuggled into Mexico without payment of import duties. Across all instances, UIF detection of suspicious financial activities was vital in identifying potentially corrupt officials that facilitated the illicit movement of goods across the international border. 

Impact on Crime and the Rule of Law

Corruption among customs authorities has significant implications for security and the rule of law in Mexico. Santiago Nieto Castillo, the UIF’s current director, told Animal Político that malfeasance among customs officials and the resulting “porous nature of our borders” (author’s own translation) heightened Mexico’s vulnerability to transnational security threats, particularly those related to illicit trafficking.

A prominent example of how customs corruption can exacerbate security challenges in Mexico has been the continuous southbound flow of firearms coming from the United States. A significant portion of firearms that are illegally imported from the U.S. end up in the possession of criminal groups in Mexico. Officials from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) told the Washington Post that roughly 70% of firearms found at crime scenes in Mexico can ultimately be traced back to the United States. According to National Public Security System (Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública, SNSP) data cited by the Washington Post, this increase in the number of U.S. firearms in Mexico has coincided with a rise in homicides in Mexico that are committed with a firearm. Although Mexican officials have consistently pointed out the need for U.S. authorities to more strictly regulate the export of arms, interdiction of illegal weapons shipments at Mexican ports of entry remains severely hampered due to pervasive corruption among customs personnel. 

The apparent increase in cross-border fuel trafficking is also of particular concern. At a recent event at the Nuevo Laredo border crossing, new AGA Administrator Horacio Duarte Olivares underscored the need to combat fuel smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border as part of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s broader emphasis on tackling government corruption. Duarte Olivares claimed that corruption in the customs service has allowed “millions of liters of fuel, of hydrocarbons” (author’s own translation) to illegally enter the country, resulting in substantial revenue losses for the Mexican government and legitimate businesses.

Customs Corruption Spurring Further Militarization

As a result of the growing number of reports of corruption among customs officials, the López Obrador administration announced on April 21 that the Mexican Army (Secretaría de Defensa Nacional, SEDENA) would assume control of 14 customs facilities in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, with the long-term goal of establishing a military presence in all customs offices along the northern border with the United States. Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval explained the move was intended to prevent U.S. firearms from flowing to organized crime groups. According to Milenio, military officials who were recently assigned to lead customs operations in Nuevo Laredo were also given the additional task of impeding illicit fuel smuggling across the border. 

Expanding the responsibilities of the military has been a defining feature of President López Obrador’s approach to security policy. However, just as prior militarized strategies have been largely unable to solve Mexico’s complex public security challenges, it is not guaranteed that increasing the military’s role in customs operations will eradicate corruption at the country’s borders and ports of entry. 

Sources

Gallegos, Zorayda. “Las aduanas y puertos mexicanos: la vía libre del crimen organizado.” El País. August 10, 2020. 

Sieff, Kevin & Miroff, Nick. “Los fusiles de francotirador que fluyen hacia los cárteles mexicanos revelan una década de fracaso estadounidense.” Washington Post. November 19, 2020.

Linthicum, Kate & McDonell, Patrick J. “Mexico’s military gains power as president turns from critic to partner.” Los Angeles Times. November 21, 2020. 

“SAT limpia de corrupción la casa; envía a 90 al MP.” El Universal. February 5, 2021.  

Rodríguez, Israel. “Se duplica cifra de funcionarios corruptos del SAT denunciados.” La Jornada. February 8, 2021.  

Rodríguez, Israel. “Aduanas continuarán con el combate al tráfico de combustibles.” La Jornada. March 1, 2021. 

“Mandos con perfiles militares toman control de aduana de Nuevo Laredo.” Milenio. March 2, 2021. 

Rivadeneyra, Gerardo. “Denuncian a empresa presuntamente involucrada en el contrabando de combustible.” Vanguardia. March 3, 2021. 

Maldonado, Mario. “Limpia en aduanas y denuncias de corrupción.” El Universal. March 10, 2021. 

Ángel, Arturo, Raziel, Zedryk, & Sandoval, Francisco. “10 oficiales de comercio de aduanas designados en este gobierno son indagados por lavado, narco y contrabando.” Animal Político. April 13, 2021. 

Hernández, Diego Joaquín. “Purga en Aduanas; pegan a círculo del exsubsecretario Peralta.” La Silla Rota. April 13, 2021.   

Ángel, Arturo, Raziel, Zedryk, & Sandoval, Francisco. “Presuntos sobornos por más de mil millones, empresas fantasma y nexos con el narco: la corrupción en aduanas.” Animal Político. April 14, 2021. 

Álvarez, Carlos. “UIF denuncia corrupción en aduanas de Tijuana, Mexicali y Tecate; empresas “fantasma”, sobornos y nexos con narco.” Zeta Tijuana. April 15, 2021. 

Domínguez, Pedro. “Sedena toma control de aduanas en frontera norte para frenar tráfico de armas.” Milenio. April 21, 2021. 

El Chapo extradited to United States

El Chapo's extradition

Seen here, El Chapo was extradited to the United States on January 19, 2017. Photo: Associated Press.

01/24/17 (written by kheinle) – One year after the arrest of Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán on January 8, 2016, the Mexican government extradited the notorious drug lord to the United States. Guzmán landed in Long Island, New York on Thursday, January 19, 2017 where he faces charges of organized crime, murder, and drug trafficking, as well as illegal use of firearms, money-laundering, and torture, among others.

Although seven U.S. jurisdictions have charges open against him, including Southern California and Chicago, Guzmán will be prosecuted in Brooklyn, NY in the state’s Eastern District Court on a 17-count indictment. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), “the indictment alleges that between January 1989 and December 2014, Guzman Loera led a continuing criminal enterprise responsible for importing into the United States and distributing massive amounts of illegal narcotics and conspiring to murder persons who posed a threat to Guzman Loera’s narcotics enterprise.”

The Road to Extradition

The DOJ has sought Guzmán’s extradition for years, but the Mexican government did not agree to do so until the requests for the kingpin’s turnover until it approved the most recent application on May 11, 2016, putting the process officially in motion. The decision to approve the extradition was likely influenced by Guzmán’s repeated ability to evade the Mexican government, having escaped from prison in 2001 and again in 2015. Mexico’s inability to securely hold Guzmán was not only a source of public ridicule, but it also undermined rule of law in a country working to establish a stronger judicial system and solidify democratic practices. Still, the extradition came as a surprise on both sides of the border. According to The New York Times, the U.S. government, for example, was reportedly not aware of Guzmán’s extradition until hours before his arrival in NY. Guzmán’s lawyer, José Refugio Rodríguez, was also unaware of his client’s departure, having arrived to the Mexican prison where Guzmán was detained to meet with his client only to find his extradition already underway. “I was supposed to visit him today,” said Refugio. “I know nothing about this.”

El Chapo's extradition

El Chapo was arraigned in the Eastern District Court in New York following his extradition. Photo: Univisión.

Some speculate that the secretive nature surrounding the extradition may be part of a bigger political message being sent from Mexico to the United States. In fact, Guzmán landed in NY just hours before President Donald Trump’s inauguration, meaning he was technically extradited to the United States under President Barak Obama, who was seen in Mexico as a strong ally. A U.S. law enforcement official told The New York Times that the extradition’s last minute timing was possibly “politically motivated.” In early January, Justice in Mexico Director David Shirk told the Dallas Morning Times that “Mexico’s willingness to extradite Chapo Guzmán is going to diminish on January 21” once Trump was in the Oval Office. Jorge Chabat, a security expert at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE), noted that Mexico may have been trying to underscore the benefits of cooperation. “By not waiting to send [Guzmán] to Trump after the inauguration,” he said, “it is a subtle statement saying, ‘We could this for you, too, in the future, if we have a good relationship.” Nevertheless, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) denied such claims. “It has nothing to do with [U.S. presidential turnover,” said PGR Director Alberto Elías Beltrán. He continued, “Everything was handled through terms following international law because we had to promptly make the delivery of the person requested by the United States. Had we not, we would have been out of compliance with international treaties.”

Regardless of the motivation, Guzmán’s extradition is a significant milestone in the war on drugs and the overall U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship.

Sources:

Dresser, Denise. “El Chapo(teadero).” Reforma. January 11, 2016.

“The legal battle over El Chapo’s potential extradition.” Justice in Mexico. January 23, 2016.

Levinson, Jonathan. “NAFTA benefits more than just trade, but it needs to be changed,” Dallas Morning News, January 10, 2017.

Ahmed, Azam. “El Chapo, Mexcan Drug Kingpin, Is Extradited to U.S.” The New York Times. January 19, 2017.

“Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán es extraditado a Estados Unidos.” Univisión. January 19, 2017.

Office of Public Affairs. “Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera Faces Charges in New York for Leading a Continuing Criminal Enterprise and other Drug-Related Charges.” U.S. Department of Justice. January 20, 2017.

U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York. “Memorandum of Law in Support of Pretrial Detention.” U.S. Department of Justice. January 20, 2017.